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The Row Boat
"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Answering the New Apathy3/16/2008 17:28:11
A few months ago, in anticipation of the New York primary, I joined a few friends in starting a website called votingisthenewapathy.com. Using YouTube videos and MySpace-inspired design, we hoped to generate some kind of "viral" buzz for the upcoming election among the young hipster crowd. As you can see from the stats, it got a few hits. Considerably more, incidentally, than The Row Boat does. But none of us got the feeling that the world was changing because of our remix of Tay Zonaday's "Chocalate Rain."
Now that the primary is over, that little group of ours is working our way through an identity crisis. We've thought of going more subtle, of working through our apathy blog-style rather than confronting it directly with Obamaism. After the last meeting, though, we agreed amicably to do nothing for the moment, which seemed like the right thing for all of us.
In contrast, a kind of contrast that comes up from time to time now, last night I saw the film Chicago 10 about the famous trial of war protesters following the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention; I saw it with another politicized group of friends, along with a pair of old activist Jesuits. The film was entirely hagiographical, but in a masterful way, begging that familiar question of my generation: why were they like that (resisting the war and proposing a new social vision) yet we are like this (letting the now-proverbial war proceed and being rather self-satisfied)?
Today, for the demographic that opposed the war in the sixties (now my demographic), the stakes have entirely changed. There is no draft that promises to send us off to die when we finish school. On a daily basis, economically speaking, there is far more to gain by not thinking about the war than thinking about it. For those who do, it has become a kind of exercise in charity rather than a fight for our survival. Unfortunately, though, this means ignoring our complicity in the utter dehumanization and destruction of societies abroad, as well as a generation of American soldiers forever scarred by violence.
The protests of the sixties, of course, did not end their war. The Vietcong did. The mostly white, mostly elite, and mostly well-educated mostly got real jobs, and not all with non-profits. And when the Iraq War came, they went to a few protests, sang the same songs, and watched the bombs fall on TV with the rest of us. Slavoj Zizek has captured the phenomenon in terrifying terms:
The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’
Now it is a new world, and there are new means other than reenacting our parents' glory days. MoveOn.org promises that on the internet we can save the movement from our office chairs. "Taking action," quite literally, has been reduced to clicking the red button of an emailed petition. This sort of activism is the perfect mirror to a war that has been kept at total distance the home front, seen through hazy night-vision images and fought by an army that recruits with video games and has changed its uniform to look like a pixilated screen.
Amidst that hilarious tragedy there was something so refreshing about seeing, in Chicago 10, the footage of the crowd in front of the Chicago Hilton, where the Convention delegates were staying, chanting, "Peace Now!" A simple statement, in person, difficult to refuse (yet refused), and subsequently crushed by police nightsticks. So that was that. The internet is far safer.
March 19th is the fifth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. We are completely confused, my friends and I. This insane, wasteful failure has been the defining political event of my young adulthood, and its lesson is to not believe in politics. Leave politics to the experts who handle it from afar while "your children" are fast asleep. The collapse of our parents' protests (into either frustration or neoconservatism) has left us in a miserable apathy, between brave futility and wonderful inanity.
Apathy in the face of madness is a religious problem (religion broadly—and rightly—construed). Also economic, social-structural, psychological, ethical, poetic; but I know more about religion. This is a crisis of the imagination which fails to recognize the transcendent demand that other human beings might hold over us, the demand that makes both community and divinity possible. When the alternative is apathy, I hate to say it (and hardly believe it), prayer might be the place to start. From there, old words with new meanings: repentance, to reconciliation, to resurrection. When we realize that other beings are at stake, even prayer escapes the delusions of its nature.
This is less piety than helplessness.
re: Answering the New Apathy - 3/16/2008 17:33:21
re: Answering the New Apathy - 3/17/2008 09:28:04
algorithmic politics - 3/17/2008 09:47:48
re: neocons - 3/17/2008 11:49:16
re: Answering the New Apathy - 3/20/2008 10:11:05
re: Answering the New Apathy - 3/30/2008 20:11:30